By Harry Forbes
“Not the Titanic again” you might be thinking. Well, yes it is, but playwright Bernard McMullan’s well-structured take on the iconic 1912 tragedy is uniquely powerful, and provides a one-man showcase for star Colin Hamell who plays an impressive variety of 20-odd characters throughout the 75-minute performance.
The titular Jimmy Boyle (fictitious) is a Belfast dock worker who, after helping construct the ship, earns a job shoveling coal on the doomed vessel’s maiden voyage with his friend Johnny. Hamell embodies those two characters, as well as other unsung crewmen, the ship’s high and low-born passengers (from John Jacob Astor to a poor Italian man imploring help for his family), an anxious New York Times editor, and a Belfast mayor who fears that the city will be blamed for the ship’s faulty construction.
The plights of the ship workers and the doomed passengers are poignantly dramatized. The whole is framed by a whimsical setup of Jimmy in Heaven where, as a survivor, he has become quite the star, as he intermingles with an effete, practical joking Gabriel, a very Italian St. Peter, and a goodfella God.
These Heaven scenes may sound hokey on paper, but actually the brew of humor -- which includes such conceits as a disco where Jimmy has become a magnet for the ladies thanks to his Titanic exploits -- and high drama are a canny dramatic device, and McMullan doesn’t pull any punches when describing the flaws in the Titanic’s makeup, the inadequate emergency measures, the fatal errors in judgement in terms of the evacuation, and of course, the many instances of bravery and self-sacrifice.
And without weighing down the play with ponderous facts, McMullan manages to work in plenty of extraordinary statistics about the 1500 fatalities (all but one of the numerous newlywed husbands perished, to cite one such) and how the lifeboats that were not filled to capacity, resulting in the needless death of several hundred.
Hamell relates all this with alternating charm, intensity, and unflagging energy.
The piece premiered at Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival NYC in 2012, and has toured since. It’s been directed by Carmel O’Reilly at a fast-moving, absorbing pace. The whole is greatly enhanced by Michael Gottlieb’s evocative rivet-studded backdrop, new to the Irish Rep’s mounting, and dramatic lighting, as when Hamell mimes shoveling coal in the fiery furnace.
Simple as the production is, it packs as much of a wallop, in its way, as James Cameron’s epic film and other big budget tellings.
(Irish Rep Theatre, 132 West 22 Street; 212-727-2737 or irishrep.org; through February 18)
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